SJC to Review Pleas Conditioned to Preserve Defendant’s Right to Appeal

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is scheduled to hear arguments regarding conditional pleas on April 2, 2018 in Commonwealth v. Gomez, SJC-12437. In the federal system and in many states, a defendant may condition his plea to preserve his right to appeal the denial of a pretrial motion. This type of plea allows a defendant to quickly enter into a disposition, directly appeal the denial of his pretrial motion, and withdraw his plea to re-litigate his case if he is successful on appeal. Attorney Bernard currently has a case pending on appeal which has been stayed to await the decision in Gomez.

There are many benefits to these types of pleas, particularly judicial economy. Often times, a defendant will take his case to trial solely to preserve an issue for appeal. This type of plea would benefit the trial court system because it would allow a defendant to dispose of a case quickly and efficiently without forgoing his right to appeal the true issue of his case.

There is no case law in Massachusetts that precludes a defendant from entering into a conditional plea. Rule 12 of the Massachusetts Rules of Criminal Procedure, which addresses pleas, is also silent on this issue. However, there is one statute that speaks to the rehearing of a pretrial motion after a defendant has entered into a plea. G.L. c. 278, §18 states that “[a]ny pretrial motion filed in a criminal case… decided before entry of defendant's decision on waiver of the right to jury trial shall not be refiled or reheard thereafter, except in the discretion of the court as substantial justice requires.”

The statute does not, however, describe where such pretrial motion is to be reheard. Typically in the legal context, the term “rehear” indicates that the court that originally heard the pretrial motion will hear it again. Yet, the Massachusetts legislature has used the term to implicate the venue and jurisdiction of the appeals court. When the Massachusetts legislature established the appeals court in 1972 by statute, the acts stated that the court of appeals was created for the “rehearing of matters of law arising in civil and criminal cases… ” House Act No. 3553 (1972) (App. at 47); Senate Act No.1277 (1972) (App. at 49); see also Appeals Court History (App. at 63). The legislature has arguably again implicated the venue and jurisdiction of the appeals court in G.L. c. 278, §18.

Listen to the oral arguments on April 2nd: